Feature: Shuggie Otis. Sweet Like Sugar.
A Shuggie Otis feature, Sweet like Sugar.
It was a chilly Sunday night in North London and my thoughts probably should have been focused on the working week ahead. Fortunately instead I was surrounded by the rouge walls and pendent chandeliers of Camden’s historic KOKO, about to watch one of music’s most celebrated enigmas – the effortlessly cool Shuggie Otis.
There was heady anticipation in the air, and quite rightly so. Singer-songwriter-musician Otis will be releasing a brand new solo album this year, his first since 1974’s classic Inspiration Information, and his comeback European tour should make the music world stand up and pay attention once again.
Born Johnny Alexander Veliotes Jr., the son of renowned bandleader and musician Johnny Otis, he began his incredible career at the tender age of fifteen, playing as a session guitarist alongside Al Kooper and releasing his first solo album Here Comes Shuggie Otis in 1970 on Epic Records. B.B. King called him his “favorite new guitarist” and he has performed and collaborated with a wide range of respected artists including sessions with Frank Zappa, Etta James and Richard Berry.
The expansive Freedom Flight in 1971 was a great success and spawned notable tracks such as Strawberry Letter 23 (later a huge hit for The Brothers Johnson) and Sweet Thang. Yet, follow-up album and masterpiece Inspiration Information, a rousing fusion of soul, blues and R’n’B, had modest sales and failed to meet over-inflated commercial expectations; perhaps a victim of its own genius and ahead of its time.
There is a misconception the ensuing years saw Otis disappear into early retirement and become reclusive; a view contested in interviews with him and a portrayal that appears to be much to his chagrin. Instead, he was married, had children and supported his family, continuing to work on his music and performing as a session artist for his father’s recording project. Plus there were those famous offers from Billy Preston to join the Rolling Stones (replacing Mick Taylor), and from Quincy Jones to produce his next record. Both were politely declined as Otis chose to remain fiercely independent.
In 2001, Inspiration Information was reissued by David Byrne’s independent Luaka Bop label and then again in 2013 by Sony, along with an appended disc of fourteen unreleased tracks called Wings Of Love which contains highlights from the so-called exile period.
Then, back in November 2015 Otis shook things up with a release of 7”, Ice Cream Party, a rip-roaring psychedelic musical ride and a tasty morsel of things to come.
At KOKO, the lights lowered and Shuggie Otis arrived on stage promptly to face an appreciative and eager crowd. His presence alone commands attention; striking in a natty pinstripe suit and fedora and donning a white Stratocaster, he had lost none of the cool composure that emanated from his 1970s album shots and photographs. He appeared relaxed, asking his band with a wry smile ‘Where am I at?’ (the response ‘merry old London, sir!’) before launching straight into Tryin’ To Get Close To You, followed swiftly by the trippy soul-funk track, Miss Pretty, with shades of Sly and the Family Stone.
After the irresistible grooves of Island Letter, the only song to be played from the original version of Inspiration Information, Otis introduced his band who had a great chemistry throughout the evening; Albert Quon Wing on sax and flute, Russell “Swang” Stewart on keys, brother Nicholas Otis on drums and his son Eric on bass who received a particularly loud reception.
Me and My Woman, an album track from Freedom Flight , was a slice of natural funk and Sweetest Thang, which Otis clearly pointed out was pronounced ‘thang’ and spelling it out for good measure, went down well. As with many tracks from the compact but quality set, it became the platform for an extended jam, with drifting sounds and soaring solos.
Picture of Love saw Otis treating us to some phenomenal guitar playing. Although at times a little wavering, his velvety vocals were still a delight to hear. After a simple nod from Otis to Stewart on keyboards, the band broke into the soft-rock Wings of Love. With the light reflecting off KOKO’s huge disco ball and the band decked out in vintage ‘70s apparel, it gave a brilliant, hallucinatory feel to the gig.
‘Let’s do what’s right’ said Otis, introducing the upbeat ‘Doin’ What’s Right’ which offered another ending with a great crescendo. He said ‘Thank you very much, I really enjoyed it’ and blew kisses to the audience before exiting the stage. I wasn’t ready for it to be over, and thankfully nor was Otis. With barely enough time to grab another drink, he and the band returned for an encore. ‘Everybody followed me back here, I feel like playing some more!’ he said and then, ever the charmer, ‘Everywhere I go there is a pretty girl!’ to a lucky woman at the front of stage.
Through the cheers, someone shouted the word ‘strawberry’ as a prompt and, deep down, I suspect we had all come along for a slice of the classic track. We were indulged; the familiar chords of Strawberry Letter 23 played out and were met with huge appreciation. It sounded incredible live; punchier, bolder but just as intoxicating with its ethereal, psychedelic-tinged funk. We didn’t really need to be instructed to ‘Sing it London!’ by one of the band; Otis had the air of a minister on stage, the audience his loyal congregation, and we sang along of our own volition. A pinch-yourself moment if ever there was one.
The parting track was Ice Cold Daydream, which saw Otis genuinely lost in the music, his tall and slim frame crouching down for some virtuoso guitar playing. It was an explosive performance and gloriously ear-bursting stuff and the denouement was protracted but epic.
Then it was over. Otis pretended to hurl his guitar into the cheering crowd before leaving us with a simple coda of ‘Good to see you!’ and letting his band play out and bid us goodnight.
As the audience spilled out and KOKO was stripped bare of action, apart from the disco ball that continued to revolve in the glaring bright light, I had an overwhelming sense I had witnessed something meaningful; a 1970s soul prodigy live in my own home town.
Otis’ name has been spoken in reverential tones by a number of different recording artists, his artistry extensively sampled by Beyoncé, J Dilla and OutKast to name a few and people care passionately about Inspiration Information. I can see why. Shuggie Otis is an intoxicating music enigma and seeing him live was as sweet as sugar.
Feature by Nicola Greenbrook and portrait and photography by Simon Jay Price.
Nicola writes about music, fashion and London events in her blog Material Whirl. http://www.materialwhirlblog.com/